Sunday, 8 November 2020

Autumn Birding - Part 2 Cornwall and isles of Scilly 13th - 17th October


Following my short break in Shetland, I spent a couple of nights at home, checking on my Mum and was off again, this time to the Isles of Scilly. 

Leaving Nottingham at the crack of dawn I changed in London, and took a train from London Paddington at 10am, with a night planned in Penzance. With a few hours of light available in Cornwall, I pondered on what would be a good plan to see some decent birds. It occurred to me that Red-billed Chough were now around the Cornish Coast, and after consulting my friend, Simon Roberts, I decided to try Porthgwarra. 

I checked in at my hotel and took a taxi from Penzance. A couple of birders on site had seen a Yellow-browed Warbler by the car park and had seen a Chough distantly. Hearing that they were even about was encouraging, so I set off up the hill and around the headland, past the coastguard lookout and round to Gwennap Head. Seeing a couple of black birds flying around a grassy area, I raised my bins to see two Red-billed Chough. I walked steadily closer, and stopped occasionally as there was no cover to hide behind. The sky had gone almost charcoal grey and as I got as close as I dare, it started to rain. I managed a few shots before the heavens opened and I put my camera away. 

I managed to shelter behind a small bluff on the edge of the cliff, as it absolutely tipped it down. However, it was short-lived and to my relief, when I emerged from my hiding place, the birds were still there and with the sun out, I got quite close to one of the birds for some nice close ups.

Red-billed Chough

I spent a while watching these iconic birds, which returned to the county in 2001.

The next morning, after a hearty cooked breakfast I boarded the Scillonian, bound for the Isles of Scilly for the second time this year. 

With nothing enticing enough to get me on an off island, I walked to Porth Hellick Down in pursuit of a Little Bunting that had been found a couple of days earlier. The bird was initially elusive but then popped up on the edge of the path just two metres away but in deep shade and then - nightmare!  I had inadvertently ranked up the F-stop to F22, meaning I was shooting at some ridiculous ISO. By the time I had figured out how to turn the F-stop down to F6.3 the bird had flown and I was left with useless over-noisy images.  After a few fleeting sightings, during which I was told to 'Get out of the f*cking way!' I don't know why the guy couldn't stand somewhere else, the bird settled down in the open, and close enough for some passable record shots.

Little Bunting

It was a while since I had seen a Little Bunting, so it was nice to see one so well.

I doubled back and then walked along the board walk through Higher Moors, pausing by the Sussex Hide, where a Jack Snipe was feeding in the open. There was just enough of a gap betwixt hide and bushes for me to get off a clear shot. Very nice and such delightfully cryptic plumage as the bird rocked back and forth.

Jack Snipe

I crossed the road and worked my way through Holy Vale, recording three Yellow-browed Warblers on the way. Continuing to Longstones, I paused for refreshments, sampling the Banoffee Cake with a pot of tea. This was an inspired break, as a Common Crossbill, Peregrine Falcon, Greylag and Pink-footed Geese flew over in my 20 minutes there.

Continuing through Carreg Dhu, and across the fields to Carn Friars Lane, dropped down to Old Town and I checked in at Lower Moors,  where a Water Rail gave tantalising glimpses through the reeds.

I ate at the Atlantic, which is okay for pub grub but isn't particularly inspiring. My first choice had been the Mermaid, but they were alas, fully booked.

The next day, I was up straight after breakfast and walked to Penninis Head in search of a Snow Bunting, which had been reported as showing well the previous evening.

I was joined by Tony Collinson, and after a brief search Tony located the bird near the lighthouse and we proceeded to have excellent views.

Snow Bunting

I dropped down by the coast path via Old Town, and noted several Redwings at Nowhere in the garden, before retuning to Hugh Town. I had enrolled on a round islands trip aboard the Sapphire with Joe Pender. Rather then a full on pelagic, we went a mile or two out and checked out some of the small uninhabited islands and islets. Highlights were an Atlantic Puffin, close-in Gannets, a Lapwing, Little Egret and four Spoonbills. The light was good and apart from the Puffin, which was hard to lock on to as it disappeared in the troughs, I got some decent shots.



Atlantic Puffin


Little Egret

After disembarking at the harbour, I joined Richard Stonier at Porthloo Beach in the hope of getting some money shots of Sanderling, which had been noted as especially confiding there. We settled in position on the beach, initially at a respectful distance and waited for the birds to come to us, which they did. I think the results are pretty satisfactory, to say the least.


I left Richard with the Sanderlings and walked up to telegraph and then down the hill to Carreg Dhu and thence to Longstones. I spent quite some time here, as there was a decent vantage point from which to look over Higher Moors and the Airport, as a ringtail Hen Harrier had been patrolling the island all day and this seemed to be a good place from where to see it. 

As it transpired, the bird appeared briefly from the direction of Maypole and it seemed it would fly over my head but it went down, out of view and I never saw it again.  I remained in the area for another two hours, during which time a Red-backed Shrike put in an appearance in failing light, and 70 Fieldfares alighted in a tree before moving off. 

Red-backed Shrike

I ate at Juliet's, arriving there at dusk. The starter of Mackerel mousse was superb, and I looked forwards to my main of duck on a warm salad with excitement. While the salad was nice, the duck was as tough as boot leather. The sticky toffee pudding with ice cream was lovely and almost rescued the meal. 

Emerging from the restaurant, I soon realised walking from there to Hugh Town, with no moon was going to be interesting. I managed with the aid of the torch on my phone, to negotiate the route, via Porthloo Lane and Rocky Hill. It's no wonder the Victorians were fond of their Lunar Societies.

On Day 3 I took a boat to St. Agnes, in a hope of seeing the Buff-bellied Pipit at Horse Point. I arrived in the company of Richard Stonier and Rob Lambert and the bird was located quickly, loosely associating with a group of Meadow Pipits, although the bird soon settled down in one area alone and gave the assembled admirers some stunning views.

Buff-bellied Pipit

As I left the site, a Merlin flew over. Typically nifty, I somehow scrambled my camera, and got a record shot. I had hopelessly wrong settings for the moment - but it did at least capture the moment, albeit imperfectly.


I returned via Barnaby Lane and down to the legendary Parsonage. Here I had two Yellow-browed Warblers and one remained still for long enough for me to get a photo. It had been a phenomenal October for the species on Scilly with at least 100 estimated on the islands on 12th.

Continuing down the hill to the cricket pitch, I turned the corner and headed up to the church, which sits adjacent to a small boat yard and a beach. I saw a Black Redstart here, and news on WhatsApp indicated that there had been a general arrival on the islands. The bird performed in between the showers.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Black Redstart

I wandered back to the quay via the Turk's Head, where I ordered the sticky toffee pudding. This was sticky toffee pudding par excellence!  It was so indulgent, with the dark tones of the treacle merging with a creamy back taste, all melting into a puddle of vanilla ice cream and general gooiness. 

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Back at Hugh Town, I peered over the wall at Mermaid Corner, where an adult Mediterranean Gull was tolerably close. I think these are among the most photogenic species we have!  

I convinced Richard to look for the Nightingale, which had taken up residence on the seaward side of Little Porth. After a brief wait the bird popped out and gave us ridiculously good views. Certainly the best views of the species I have had in the UK.

Mediterranean Gull


I left the Nightingale and decided to have a walk to the airport to see what might be around the windsock. Apart from a few Mippits, it was quiet, and I passed Giant's Castle, when the 'Quip Quip of the Quail that is my WhatsApp notification alerted me to an Olive-backed Pipit, which had been found at Carn Friar's Farm. I walked more quickly, via Porth Hellick beach and through the gate at the end and up the hill to the farm. The bird was in a small orchard and viewing was hampered via brambles (Rubi sp.), so with mask in place, I got some nice views as the bird worked its way through the grass.

Olive-backed Pipit

It was about 6pm, when a local appeared in a golf buggy, entered the field and drove down the particular avenue where the bird was feeding, flushing it. As far as I could tell, this was with the sole aim of disturbing the bird. I don't know for certain, but it seemed a bit of a co-incidence, after a fellow local had come to look at the bird minutes earlier.

With the best of the light gone, I got a taxi back to town, as I had a table booked at Kavorna. They had wanted to take a deposit when I booked, but I had convinced them that this was unnecessary, citing Scillonian referees in the process.

I had the starter of baked Mackerel, followed by fillets of hake in lobster sauce. It was spot on! I can also recommend the Cornish Pasties, which Kavorna does a roaring trade in, at lunch time.

On my last day, I headed for St. Martin's where a Pallas's Leaf Warbler had been showing behind the Seven Stones Pub at Lower Town. It quickly transpired that none of the birders on the boat had any idea where the bird was, beyond what I have already stated and after a few phone calls, one guy got more details. The precise spot was a sunny migrant trap, and it wasn't long before the warbler came out, in the company of a Pied Flycatcher,

I was still getting used to my new camera, and I messed up the shot on the warbler.  

Pied Flycatcher

Pallas's Leaf Warbler

I had a coffee at the pub and did a bit of a walk, around Lower Town, where a few Fieldfares were eating apples at the bottom of a garden, and I snapped one as it flew over. I took a snap of the beautiful view of Teän from the slipway. The island being the only place to my knowledge in the UK with an umlaut in the name.

Teän viewed from St. Martin's


I got back to St. Mary's with just enough time to get a taxi to Harry's Walls, where a Short-eared Owl was perched up in the open.  It was a great way to round off my trip. 

Short-eared Owl

All being well, Covid-19 permitting, I'll be back in August 2021 for more pelagics.

Andy Hall
November 2020.

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